5 ways to help students understand interpretation

5 ways to help students understand interpretation

Everyone in a complex system has a slightly different interpretation. The more interpretations we gather, the easier it becomes to gain a sense of the whole. – Margaret J. Wheatley

Educational institutions are definitely complex systems along with young people arriving each day full with their own experiential backpacks, they bring a wide variety of influences that determine their outlook; culture, parental, peer, religious, and so on. These personal perspectives are infinitely valuable to provide a ‘whole’ system. Each interpretation of events in the complex system has worth. We want youth to consider and create their own judgements but through an informed course of action. How do we install a methodology for students to be thoughtful and critical, yet remain subjective?

Installing the difference between us is the starting point. Recently while travelling through Albania we encountered locals shaking their heads as a sign for “yes” – this was initially confusing because how I read the signal has the opposite meaning (and for a “no” the Albanians give a slight nod). My interpretation is based on my cultural upbringing, which differs to others. It was a case of interpretation.

In the Arts we explore interpretation through an analytic approach and this interpretation is twofold. On one hand we have how we view art and the other, how we create art. Installing an understanding of how we observe and what constructs our views also provides the security and confidence when it comes to creating.

Interpretation is a subjective practice. In educational environments it can be difficult for students to hold on to their own perceptions as they are heavily influenced by peers (like or dislike) and educators (often, right or wrong). For example, I have my personal perspective of an artistic aesthetic which appeals to me. I try not stamp it on my students yet it is important they are exposed to what I appreciate, although they need to be free to decide whether they like it or not, and importantly, say why.

Figuring out what one likes and dislikes in the Arts comes with many advantages. Students have the opportunity to develop their own aesthetic preferences – their taste for art. We all know that our own tastes differ, teaching this to students is often difficult when they are so impressionable to peer pressure. A student must realise that their backpack, that they come to school with is not only fill of their lunch, device, books and pencil case but a history of who they are. All of the input that they have absorbed, seen, been told or actively searched out makes up their opinion, their worldly perspective. It may differ to the student next to them for so many reasons, and that is ok. Some simple ways to help students with establishing their personal perspectives can be easily installed through these exercises:

  • Listing classes at school from most to least liked with descriptions of why they enjoy (and don’t enjoy) those subjects.


  • List hobbies and extra-curricular activities – these are usually based on what they want to do with their time.


  • Favourite music, movies, food and places, and then inversely things they don’t like.


  • Short stories about their family life, rituals, daily routines and how the family has fun together.


  • Stories and songs that are specific to their culture and what the meaning of those stories/songs are.

These exercises do not need to be pen and paper activities either. For example: School subjects could be stations around the classroom, split the class in half, half go to their most favourite subject and the other to their least. In these groupings at each station they discuss why. Then the next subject, i.e. the second most and second least, discuss… and so on.

Alternatively, have little skits that combine eating a favourite food at their favourite place to their favourite song – make it a journey, where they encounter things they dislike along the way to get there. Perform them to the class and open it up to peer feedback.

By using some of these exercises and discussing them together an atmosphere of acknowledgement and acceptance can be formed about who we are, and why we are all different.

This sets a foundation for looking and listening to art and having an opinion. Most importantly is that students begin to be able to justify their choices – talking about how the artist used the elements of art to create the work. It requires observation plus the higher order thinking skills of analysis and evaluation; by using knowledge of the Art form to deconstruct and formulate judgements. These are transferable skills. Therefore, an opinion can be justified. For example, I like this painting because of the use of negative space, or I dislike it because of the use of negative space. Neither is wrong, both are right.

This then lays the foundation for the students’ own creation of art. Once they can analyse why they like or dislike they will be encouraged to follow their own path while interpreting a topic. It is essential there is an understanding that interpretation is what makes art. Art is nothing without interpretation. A personal point of view is what makes art imaginative. The same landscape can be painted countless times but it will always be done differently by different people, making it original.

An activity to reinforce this (and can be used as assessment) is to let students peer assess each other’s work by recreating it. Letting them try to better the work by evaluating where they interpreted the weak areas and how it could be improved. Providing an explanation for how and why they decided to change it provides the teacher with an insight to the student’s understanding of the work.

Understanding interpretation provides students with a confirmation about who they are and where they come from, their personal taste and the security that their preferences are valid. This in turn allows them the freedom to create knowing that their way of doing things is as authentic as the person next to them.

More about creativity and education on my blog.

Header image by Nela.

Ready to teach a multidisciplinary arts project?

Ready to teach a multidisciplinary arts project?

We had long been talking in our department about interdisciplinary with other subject areas but getting it off the ground was difficult. This is when we looked at the situation from another perspective and thought why don’t we do it internally; multidisciplinary projects within the Performing Arts?

In Grade 6 and 7 all students have to take Drama, Dance, Music and Theatre Design. We took the decision to combine two disciplines where they have to create a single product over the course of a semester. So, Grade 6 attend Dance and Music where they have to compose a dance and a piece of music to a certain theme (first semester ‘personality traits’ and the other in second semester ‘opposites’). In Drama and Theatre Design they devise small theatrical pieces and make costume elements, and then in the second semester create puppets for a self-devised piece.

Grade 7 we switch it up with the aim of challenging student perceptions and thinking. We combine, Dance with Drama and then Music with Theatre Design. These couplings that are not so ‘natural’ produce some excellent work and I have been surprised by the willingness, and openness the students have approached the tasks. The end of unit performances this past semester were particularly strong which surprised, not only us, but the students. Putting ‘unexpected’ elements together is an identified tool to help enhance creative thinking (and an upcoming blog post).

We leave the actual creating of the final work till quite late and spent the majority of time through the unit skill building. Students spent one lesson a week in each of the two disciplines they are doing for the semester. In my context, through dance, a focus on how to abstract movement from words and gestures, working with choreographic tools. In the Music class they anaylsis pieces through listening tasks, learn some basic theory and work on composition skills. These are independent lessons, music and dance, but are ‘sold’ to the students as one course, for example we look at how to compose music and choreograph  dance over a two week period using the same stimulus “rollercoaster”. All the time we push students beyond ‘the first thing’ they think of while doing any type of creating. Trying to get them into a habit of producing multiple alternatives, a great little tool to demonstrate this is the 10x2 artful thinking activity.

Our goal is that when we arrive at the final product the students should be in a semi-autonomous state, where they only need guiding questions and prompting. We provide boundaries – what needs to be included – and continually guide them with feedback.

There are loads of positives doing these multidisciplinary project based units and we make sure that there is an authentic audience at the conclusion by inviting parents. Beyond that:

  • It is a collaborative process, students work in groups of three to six and have to deal with compromises – finding strategies to work effectively together.
  • Changes perceptions about how disciplines can be combined to create. Students often enter with a “but how will we do this? What will it look like?” attitude. Even Music and Dance which are a ‘natural pairing’ students are encouraged to develop dance content without having finished composing music. This order (or simultaneous creating) is difficult for students because it breaks with expectations.
  • Tracking student progress. The constant communication with colleagues allows consistency with students across the different disciplines.
  • Reduced planning time, as we do the same lesson twice a week, the second time round with the experience of the first is often an improved version.
  • Reduced grading time. The students are receiving an overall grade for Performing Arts, some activities that are not subject specific like writing artistic intentions, reflections, exploring the stimulus are divided between the teachers and moderated. It reduces our grading load for these classes by half.
  • Students that are learning English benefit from communication and explanation from peers.
  • Makes the creative process explicit. Throughout the skill building phase we work with constraints, metaphors and producing LOTS of alternatives/solutions.
  • During the final product stage, it is a genuine problem that has to be looked at in detail and requires an analytical and playful approach.
  • Having showings during the process raises the quality, students are encouraged to work harder when they see what other groups are capable of producing.
  • Differentiation. Students choose their own  groups, which manifests in pushing each other to achieve higher (in almost all combinations, although you always get one group…)

The multidisciplinary approach has been a very successful model within our context and one that we really enjoying teaching. I am positive it could easily work in other subject areas as well. Please feel free to ask if you have any questions on how we structure it.


Feature image by Nela

What wikipedia won’t tell you about an audience

What wikipedia won’t tell you about an audience

“When people try expressing their creativity, their self-esteem is often a reflection of the outcome of their work. Was it good? We ask ourselves.” – Benjamin Hardy.

In this blog post Benjamin Hardy writes about self-esteem when we create and put our creations out in the world. The article looks more specifically at not worrying about the outcomes but focus on ‘the doing’ to build flow. But when we do look for a  response to gauge our output, we believe an audience is required to be able to answer “was it good?”

The audience for a performance is a complex phenomenon and this blog post has been rewritten several times as I try to order my ideas and thoughts about the subject. It does not try to be a definitive article with all the answers but reflections and opinions to create thought, discussion and debate.

Who are the audience?

Anything we put out in the public sphere is subject to an audience, they become part of the feedback loop, our critics and admirers. Invited, they are a voyeur. They enter at a predetermined time and make a performance real, a non-existent contractual agreement to reveal artwork. They are an observer or a listener; they may be passive or active; they may be a targeted group or those who stumble upon the work. They have invested, at the very least, time, which makes them opinionated. They come without knowledge or understanding of the process, the grappling plethora of decisions that were made to explore and develop a work. They see and judge only what they experience with little empathy for the creator because they have invested. The audience is a fickle thing.

Numerous times I have heard performance artists say that they do not care about what the audience think, their process is the reason they create no matter how the resulting work is received. I dispute this, in so far, as the essence of any piece of art is communication, therefore it infers some thought given to those who will potentially see it. The audience is an integral part of creating and a consideration while doing so. To ignore them is ignorant, the artist does no disservice to the work of art by accepting their eventual presence. The art was intended to be seen from the onset was it not? Desiring approval from an audience is usually not the best way to make art but to eliminate them from the equation while creating would be naive.

Yet the artist should remain true to themselves and not bow to a whim of pleasing the audience. Following an unconventional path is a valid choice, stepping into the unknown, staying true to an artistic vision…  because sometimes the artist is ready and the audience is not. Take the case of Nijinsky and his choreographic work ‘Rite of Spring’ set to an original score by Stravinsky in 1913. It had a scandalous premiere in Paris, a huge step away from traditional ballet, with the dancers standing feet turned in and the music straining through dissonant chords. The audience were in an uproar of unmet expectations. As much as this performance was vehemently dismissed as rubbish at the time it is now one of the defining works of dance and music of the twentieth century.

What role does the audience play in creating?

An important one. What you want the audience to understand from a performance, frames how you create it. How the generated ideas are selected, rejected, developed and refined. The artist works with an intention that they want to convey. They formulate an impact they wish the audience to experience. These two parameters drive any work. With a clear defined intention of what the work is about and the message to be communicated, then the artist deliberates and experiments with the best methodology to deliver the content. Here, there are really no rules. What do you want to evoke in the viewer and how are you going to do it?

As a stakeholder in the performance the audience hold an incredible amount of power, they expect value for investment. Therefore one has to consider how to communicate the work to them, not to say you should make them happy. Shocking and disgusting an audience could provide them with an experience which enlightens and brings awareness to some intended issue. It does not have to be a pleasant experience, nor should it be, that is not what live theatre or performance is for. As much as a performance is a reflection of our humanity so are the audience a mirror to the work.

What do the audience do during a performance?

Even as a passive viewer or listener, the audience change the artwork when it is presented. It moves into a new domain from which it cannot return. The same dialogue, the same gestures, the same steps, the same songs as rehearsed but in front of viewers, ownership changes. It is given over to the audience, it belongs no more to the creator or performers. It stands trial.

Why do we need the audience after a performance?

At the duration the audience are a barometer of the performative experience. If they hated the work, it is not to say it is bad or invalid. Unfortunately, an artist’s career has little room for failure when launched to the public, a perceived ‘bad work’ can in fact be an important development step in the artist’s continuum. Although, ‘being as good as your last work’ does hold some truth in performance art with a reliance on funding and needing people to return to fill seats. Despite all this, there are many secrets that the audience can divulge. Insights, abstract connections, emotive reactions, realisations, praise and criticism. This is the feedback that the artist needs to hear and it can be hard, and crippling to the self-esteem. Nonetheless it is feedback and it is the artist’s decision what to do the with the feedback. Feedback is vital to the artist. This needs to be explicitly taught early on to help deal with and decipher criticism that is negative, into opportunities to learn and grow.

The performance does not need to be the end of the creative process, development can (and should) occur after presentation to an audience, the work changes and begins to live from being viewed, experienced. This provides wisdom and understanding, a different perspective that those involved may not have been able to grasp till that point. It would be foolish not to notice those details and work with them, obliterate them or enhance them. It may be for this work or for future creations.

The audience will never in its entirety agree, you can never satisfy everyone.. That’s life. It is up to the artist to negotiate and form resilience, stay true to vision and keep on creating.

Featured image from Nela

10 reasons school musicals not only rock but are learning opportunities

10 reasons school musicals not only rock but are learning opportunities


Recently I read an article on the value of school musicals… as we were fast approaching opening night of our own, which I was directing. So, here is my take on it.

“We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
– Tom Stoppard, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

After five months of rehearsals (five months for three performances!) ask any student if they think it was worth it, I’m fairly certain they would tell you ‘yes’. As with all creative endeavors it’s not just the end product but the process of practise and decision making that contains the learning, and if not the adrenalin kick of performing, the enrichment.

There are triumphant moments and loads of challenges which at the end an audience sit and (hopefully) marvel at the spectacle. What is behind the illusion on stage often gets overlooked, or never considered. Real life skills plus a multitude of learning moments are ingrained in rehearsing.

For one, anybody who thinks they can do something the first time for stage and do it right, is wrong. The students heard the word “again” come out my mouth more than any other. Characterisation is a process of empathy and experimentation, a unique mix of yourself and the qualities of the character whose role you have, every interpretation is different. Singing is about practice and refinement, as is learning to be in time with the music and each other while dancing a choreography.

Second, if you get it right once it doesn’t mean it will be right the next time… or the next time.. or the next time but the more you get it right the more consistent it will be. It is to be blunt, damn hard work, although outsiders often see it as just playing around (upcoming post soon about ‘why dance school is harder than medical school’).

Third, it is full of practical skill building. Dancing, singing and acting require coordination, active listening, body awareness, control, expression, spatial awareness, self awareness, confidence, projection, timing and empathy.

When all three are performed together, well it’s communication in a very complex form. Think about it, singing and dancing simultaneously while pretending to be someone else.

Fourth, teamwork/collaboration. The people on stage, have to work with, and trust each other to develop and produce a successful performance but they are still only a small piece of the puzzle. Costume, makeup, set designers, stage hands, light and sound technicians… Nothing looks or sounds good without them. Their process also begins at the same time as rehearsals, decisions in one creative field affect (and inspire) another, therefore clear communication between them is vital. I cannot stress how much I make the performers aware and appreciative of the people that get them to the stage and keep them looking good on it.

Fifth, it builds relationships. It is an extraordinary situation, school leavers with those starting middle school. Everyone is a stakeholder in a common goal. Students connect over similar interests that they only get to share through this unique situation. They build surprising, meaningful bonds.

Sixth, it installs an environment of responsibility. Everybody has a responsibility to know their lines, choreography and harmony. You don’t want to let yourself down, God forbid anybody else. It also gives older students the opportunity to mentor younger, and this often happens without any prompting.

Seventh, dealing with disappointment. Things do not always go right, as is the nature of live performance. Rehearsals are can be left on a low because it didn’t go as anticipated. Audiences do not always like what they see (and are usually happy enough to tell you). Getting back on the horse, being resilient and learning from those experiences is a vital part of the performer’s skill set.

Eighth, improvisation. Built during rehearsals to develop content. This is a demanding undertaking, you put yourself and your ideas totally on the line. It helps to build confidence to deal with things that go wrong in the moment which has a lot to do with being open, listening and being able to respond. Improvisation gets better with practise.

Ninth, inclusion. This one cannot be understated. Along with the tiaras and tantrums of the divas, the school musical picks up many students that sit on the social fringes. These kids are suddenly integral to a project and its success, no matter how much of an oddball their peers may think they are. The realisation that social ineptitude is actually a quirky personality with a wealth of passion.

Tenth, fulfillment and fun. At the end of the day it’s exhausting, has plenty of moments of frustration, numerous challenges and problems to be solved but it is simply fun and fills the proverbial cup to the brim. Very little that I have experienced has that same swelling feeling in the lungs and throat with a compelling urge to dance, topped off with pride and accomplishment when the cast sing the finale in a production that took five months to piece together. This is far from an exhaustive list so here is my plus one:

Eleventh. It explicitly details the creative process.

Want to read more from me?  Connect here

Header image by Nela Fletcher – see more here

How to approach feedback

How to approach feedback

“Teachers may claim they give much feedback, but the more appropriate measure is the nature of feedback received (and this is often quite little)” – John Hattie. Feedback, feedforward, instruction, prompting, cueing, guidance, we all know its documented importance in education.

Non-judgemental feedback during the creative process is an excellent tool to implement for students and teachers alike. It takes a bit of re-routing but once in place can be very powerful.

All you have to do is describe what they see or hear, easy right? Well, this is harder to do than one realises but once students have that factual description of what someone else sees, it provides them with a different perspective to their work. It has to be a methodical process, starting with the big picture (the most obvious) and then becoming more refined. And I suggest that one really starts with the words “I see” or “I hear” to frame it for students.

Next, contextualise the work by relating it back to the task. This is also the time where the viewer can start to talk about interpretation of what they saw. Does it match the task? What still needs to be done? What knowledge do you have to help you continue and develop?

The process very quickly draws one to details and makes things explicit that the students had possibly not realised or expected. It gives them new ideas to consider, try out and evaluate. It reveals what is missing. It talks as much about what is not present, as what is.

The thing I love about this is the autonomy it gives the creators and that it increases self-efficacy. It is not a teacher saying “Now you need to think about adding X so that  it fulfills the criteria.” It also avoids you passing a judgement that puts the work on a scale. It provides space for students to reflect and realise what needs to be addressed.

Project Zero have a great system for this as part of their ‘visible thinking’ routines. Called “I see, I think, I wonder” – describe what your see, comment on what it makes you think and then ask what it makes you wonder. It is a gradual progression that brings attention to observation, connects opinion, and finally thinking about possible alternatives or solutions.

Things to watch out for in the initial stage (because people just love to give their opinion when it comes to someone else’s creation), “I liked…”, “I feel like…”, “It was good that…”, etc. Strive to have the description first, there needs to be space between this step and adding opinion to digest and reflect. Get students to share what they have seen, it’s surprising how much can be extracted. Even this, being aware of how much is in front of them can open doors of possibilities.


**Header picture by my talened wife Nela Fletcher, for more click here

Important reasons why we should play

Important reasons why we should play

My eldest boy (born in the year of the Chinese rabbit), when comfortable, will search out contact and interaction with anyone …and everyone. We were recently in Colmar, France for the Easter vacation. Travelling with kids it’s their happiness that has to be a priority, more or less. As my wise father’s mantra goes ‘if the kids are happy, I’m happy’.

Part of that happiness was choosing where we booked our accommodation. We have learnt from our mistakes. The place we found in Colmar was a block of small holiday apartments that has an indoor swimming pool, a deal breaker. No matter the weather, we can be in the pool with the kids – kids happy, we’re happy.  On one occasion a few other families were enjoying, what I suspect was the same philosophy as ours. My eldest is five and lucky enough to be growing up bilingual (learning a third in Kindergarten) although all the other children in the swimming pool spoke French, which he doesn’t.

He eventually got himself into a game of catch with a girl probably three years older than himself. After fifteen minutes the ball was no more even a subject and the two of them were simply playing – but with clear communication. They had figured out structures, invented on the spot, about how they could construct rules of play and let the other know what the expectations were.

For a start I just found it cute then I really started to reflect on what they were doing. How open and accommodating to the situation they were, and through play managed to not only enjoy each other’s company but converse. The approach had me amazed at the complexity of the result. AND then to think about how we communicate with others who speak a foreign language. Ok, of course often our needs are for want of specific information – but how willing are we to let ourselves dive into a ritual of play to learn and converse with a foreign language speaker? And what results if one allowed themselves time to engage in that play?

In this case, an attention to body language and need of communication through which a common understanding was built. Playing simple games such as throwing a ball and coordinating jumping into the water simultaneously, they shared a resulting goal orientation and then forms of how to ‘talk to each other’ were established, and built on. In 40 minutes. 5 year olds.

This stretches far beyond barriers of language, leaving time and freedom for children to do what they do best can have incredible results. The various effects include peer-learning, new vocabulary, nuances and uses of language (both verbal and non-verbal), compromising, winning, losing, strategy creating, problem solving, discovery of life passions, stress release …dare the list go on? And on?

The pressures we put on fulfilling a task or ticking off knowledge acquired can adversely affect what we are really trying to achieve, which should be engaging and meaningful, and play can be that vehicle – at any age.